The Mexicali tunnels are the Grand Canyon of Human Underground Dwellers. They extend for miles beneath the city and under the border to the USA. The network makes the Manhattan subway tunnels and Michigan State Steam tunnels I have also visited diminutive in comparison. They support more HUD's than the San Francisco underground Chinatown and the Paris catacombs.

I entered with the wife of a building owner through a back room, and down steep steps to the first level. On the north side she pointed to a vertical slab of fresh concrete over an earlier entrance that coursed beneath the border to the U.S.

Our entrance, among dozens throughout the city, is unique in housing Central American immigrants who have arrived and are waiting for a coyote to sneak them into the Promised Land. They live beneath the streets and businesses cheaply and undiscovered for days or weeks in queue for their coyote. It costs about $5000 just to get to the other side, and up to $8000 for guaranteed delivery to the American cities of their choice.

The Central Americans I saw were on drugs, as seems anyone who enters the tunnels. Their tastes range from marijuana to a preponderance of methamphetamine slammers with a needle. Mattresses were strewn off the main tunnels in small cul-de-sacs while the occupants wandered zombie-like in the network. 

It is safe because they pay $.50 a day rent to the owner, my guide.

She speaks fair English in relating the history of the tunnels. ‘The Chinese immigrants from the 1920s into the 1970s built the tunnels to house the immigrants. Like now, they lived here safely waiting to escape into the USA. It was a subterranean town with homes, bars, and a casino with still roulette wheels and empty card tables. Now…’


She pulled aside a square of rotting plywood into a dark so black it was as though the little light around us was consumed. I whipped out my flashlight. Before me lay miles of passages piled with stinking garbage and hopping rats. I wanted to continue, but she demurred, ‘Not without someone with a gun.

‘Last year a man entered to scavenge the tunnels. He went in night after night for a month. Each time he brought out something or a story. Once it was human bones. Another time it was the report of a large room with dozens of concrete beds that used to house the Chinese refuges.  One night he didn’t exit and was found thrown on the streets from another entrance a half-mile south of here. He had wandered too far into La Chinesca. He was bound and had been hung by his feet and tortured.’

The Chinesca is a neighborhood located five blocks from here that is home to about 15,000 people of Chinese origin, historically the largest Chinese community in Mexico. Early in the 20thcentury Mexicali was numerically and culturally more Chinese than other immigrant groups. Even today, anyone on the streets above will tell you that China runs the town.

The Chinese arrived to the area as laborers and political refugees. They were hired to dig the Coachella Canal that feeds from the Colorado River past Slab City that is our Nile of the Sonora desert. With that thanks to China, we descended to another level in the network beneath Mexicali.

I don’t know how anyone’s eyes could adapt to that dark. A few people stumbled away when I shined the penlight. The lady said she was nervous, and I was glad to hear it. We ascended to the bright streets.


I’ve visited other entrances including one a mile to the south from a restaurant that led from the kitchen down steps into the network and to this place where the door to USA was cemented up two years ago after the Border Patrol discovered its exit a half-mile to the north in a Calexico sympathizer’s basement.

‘This is the northernmost entrance of the Chinesca complex,’ she said. ‘Since they cemented up the tunnel to the US the human trafficking has taken to the fences. It’s more expensive and riskier. The underground Chinesca has become a holding tank for the immigrants.’

As near as I can figure, the Chinese arrived to find a thriving downtown with basements beneath their hundreds of shops and restaurants. They dug and connected some forty basements that eventually led north to the border. As the settlement grew, the subterranean Chinatown extended. Some archivists have speculated that the tunnels were also used to supply alcohol to the U.S. during prohibition. It housed brothels and opium dens.

There was an earthquake a week ago beneath my feet where I type that sounded like a lightning crack through the concrete tunnels.

The pursuit of this Chinese puzzle led me above to Chinesca near the Chinese 8 restaurant. The food is authentic and cheap. I ate with a San Felipe fisherman who asked the waitress if they served Totaba. She replied with an inscrutable grimace. Totaba is endemic to the Sea of Cortez and is on the endangered species list. It grows to 7-feet and one pulled my tablemate out to sea after he had bear-hugged it and refused to let go. He nearly drown for the swim bladder that fetches $13,000 USD from Chinese smugglers who serve it as a delicacy. ‘It makes your dick four inches longer, for starters,’ he said. Five months ago, Chinese ‘tourists’ were caught on the U.S. side with $3.7 million of fish bladders from Mexicali.

I still had a yen for the HUDs but the waitress refused us entrance. There are about forty basements that make up La Chinesca and each of the buildings has a different owner. The Chinese underworld is still a doorway away.


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